Volunteer fire departments provide valuable service
by Mark Ledbetter
Many Talladega County communities depend on local volunteer fire departments to provide valuable protection against fire loss that results in reduced insurance rates.

Local departments also provide opportunities to get involved by volunteering and providing much needed emergency responses.

For the Embry family, the Waldo Volunteer Fire Department has become a family affair.

Richard Embry said he has been active for many years and became involved because of what he describes as “the love of helping mankind.”

Embry said becoming a volunteer opened other doors for him. He went back to school to earn his EMT certification, later received his Alabama 160 Volunteer Firefighter certification, and became certified as a Fire Instructor I, and has received extensive training in other important areas.

Embry’s wife, Hilary, has been volunteering since 2004 and helps by assisting instructors with training new members. Embry’s son, Brett, attended a Firemanship I class and plans to continue training, including attending Fire College Weekend next year.

Incorporating his personal faith into volunteering, Embry cites a Bible verse summarizing why many volunteer: “Greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

County Line Volunteer Fire Chief Hugo Blakenship has been a volunteer for eight years. He said he wanted to be part of something that helps others. Like many, he learned to appreciate what it means to be a volunteer fireman.

“I realized these people put their heart and soul into this,” Blankenship said, “and I wanted to be one of those people.

“Man, let me tell you, it takes a lot to do this. There are times where we go on calls at night and then when we come in, we have to go to our regular jobs. But I wouldn’t change it for nothing.”

Blankenship said his family is also active in and very supportive of the department.

Talladega County is served by 15 departments: Berney Station, County Line, East Providence, Eastaboga, Fayetteville, Ironaton, Lanier, Lay Lake, Munford, Oak Grove, Renfroe, Stemley, Sycamore, Waldo and Winterboro.

Talladega County Volunteer Fire Department Association President Bruce Hubbard estimated there are at least 300 volunteer firefighters in Talladega County.

Hubbard, who has volunteered “officially” since 1981 and serves as Renfroe’s fire chief, said he actually became active in the 70s because his father was active.

Hubbard said finances have always been an issue for volunteer fire departments.

Association Treasurer Andrea Payne, Sycamore’s fire chief, said expenses include the cost of trucks, equipment, building maintenance and utilities and insurance.

“Over half of expenses is on insurance,” Hubbard said.

Association Secretary Dana Mowery, Berney Station, said many departments have truck payments. “Truck payments are not like car payments.”

The Association receives funds from sales and use taxes that are divided and placed into two accounts. One account is reserved for Association expenses and the other is distributed equally between the 15 departments.

In recent years, however, sales and use tax revenue has been reduced because of recent economic conditions. The funds they receive are earmarked for specific purposes and the departments must raise funds to supplement department needs or purchases not covered by Association funding. Local departments resort to road blocks, selling cookbooks and other creative ways to raise funds.

Twice a year each department receives a grant from the Alabama Forestry Commission. Recently each department received $577 from the Commission.

Yet, even with Association distributions, fundraisers and grants, local departments struggle to keep their doors open.

Hubbard said if each department receives $20,000, over half of it is already spent on insurance. With some departments facing truck loans of up to $18,000, there is very little left for training and building maintenance.

Retaining firefighters has also become an issue for local departments.

Forestry Commission Volunteer Fire Assistance Coordinator Greg Wood said the money issues have forced some volunteers to reach into their own pockets to keep departments going and many are no longer willing to continue the practice.

Both Hubbard and Payne confirmed some local firefighters have stepped up personally to see local departments have needs met and that it has become a burden.

Wood also said there are greater time demands on volunteers and some are no longer able to spend the time needed to train and participate.

Many homeowners fail to realize the impact of any department that is forced to close their doors.

Steve Sprayberry of Wright & Sprayberry Insurance in Sylacauga said areas without a local volunteer fire department would realize a significant impact on their homeowner’s insurance.

“A water system is not good with no one to fight the fire,” Sprayberry said.

Sprayberry said without the local departments, insurance ratings would increase to a 10.

“A 10 rating would limit the availability of insurance providers; prices would be significantly higher,” Sprayberry said.

Insurance companies providing fire protection determine their coverage by ISO ratings. The Insurance Service Office collects data to assess a community’s Public Protection Classification. The ISO issues a rating of 1 to 10 and insurance companies base fire protection on ratings issued by ISO.

According to the Forestry Commission’s local office reports, local volunteer fire departments make hundreds of calls each month, most of which are emergency medical runs.

The local volunteer fire departments have long provided the residents they serve with protection and emergency needs. Stemley Fire Chief Geary Coogler and Hubbard both said they need local residents to support departments with financial support and their participation.

“These groups take a lot of pride in their fire department and are conscientious in what they do,” Sprayberry said.

Talladega County Forestry Specialist Phillip Horne said the local departments are very valuable.

“They save homes, respond to structure fires, vehicle fires and go out on medical runs,” Horne said. “They do a great job.”

Contact Mark Ledbetter at mledbetter@dailyhome.com

© 2012